Friday, September 25, 2009

Interviews With Claudio Reyna and Salomon Kalou at The Steve Nash "Showdown in Chinatown" Charity Soccer Game

By Carl Carpenter

This summer I had the chance to interview two players, Claudio Reyna and Salomon Kalou, after Steve Nash's second annual celebrity soccer match. Proceeds from the event went towards the Steve Nash Foundation and the Claudio Reyna Foundation. The set-up is a free, 8-a-side match featuring NBA players and professional soccer players. The match was held at Sara D. Roosevelt Park (Chrystie Street & Houston Street) in Manhattan's Lower East Side.

The match fell on the same day the U.S. national team's historic victory over Spain in the Confederations Cup. An excited crowd of U.S. supporters adorned in Red, White, and Blue began to occupy the area outside the fence. A DJ was spinning hip remixes by artists like England's Gorillaz and Virginia's N.E.R.D. The rowdy, likely intoxicated, crew of U.S. victory celebrators joined in on a rousing version of the White Stripe's, "Seven Nation Army." It's been a popular football chant of the last couple years, originating with Serie A crowds in Italy. There was a persistent rain right up until kick-off, but things lightened up just in time for the match.

This year's match featured the following players:

Steve Nash (Phoenix Suns)
Tony Parker (San Antonio Spurs)
Jason Kidd (Dallas Mavericks)
Grant Hill (Phoenix Suns)
Chris Bosh (Toronto Raptors)
Raja Bell (Charlotte Bobcats).

Claudio Reyna (US/Former NY Red Bull)
Thierry Henry (France/FC Barcelona)
Javier Zanetti (Argentina/Inter Milan)
Salomon Kalou (Ivory Coast/Chelsea)
Ryan Babel (The Netherlands/Liverpool)
Giovanni van Bronckhorst (The Netherlands/Feyenoord)
Mathieu Flamini (France/AC Milan)
Ivan Cordoba (Columbia/Inter Milan)
Adrian Mutu (Romania/ACF Fiorentina)

First half highlights started with Tony Parker netting the matches first goal for the Claudio Reyna captained blue shirts. Romania's Adrian Moutoo flew head first into a crowd of young supporters not long after. AC Milan's Mathieu Flamini struck first for the then trailing, Steve Nash captained, White jerseys. Parker struck again soon after, putting the blues back on top.d With the exception of Steve Nash, who grew up on the game in Canada and states he could have made it as a professional had it been his focus, Tony Parker was far and away the best soccer player of NBA bunch. This comes as little surprise when considering his French nationality. Jason Kidd likely came in at a distant third, showcasing decent ball control and some respectable field vision translating from his court viewing prowess. Grant Hill was able to poach a goal by hanging around the net, and also managed to pull of a hilariously executed nut-meg on seven-footer Chris Bosh.

As for the professional footballers, Salomon Kalou dominated the first half in terms of consistently flashy play. He did fall victim to an tactful megging by now retired Dutch veteran Edgar Davids. Mathieu Flamini, who moved from Arsenal to AC Milan last season, gave the few Gunner fans in attendance a taste of what skipper Arsne Wenger had let go. His passing and precise shooting kept the opposing goalie on his guard all afternoon. Serie A players made up the professionals in attendance, with Javier Zanetti from Inter Milan claiming the role as the biggest name. The attention in the second half fell entirely on Thierry Henry, the French legend who wow'd the crowd with his mere presence.

- - - - -

The du Nord interview with Claudio Reyna

Interview conducted and edited by Carl Carpenter

Claudio Reyna is irrefutably in the ranks of greatest players ever to suit up for the U.S. National Team. He was captain at the time of his retirement following the 2006 World Cup. He would go on to spend one final season at Manchester City in the English Premier League before moving to the MLS in 2007. He started 27 games for the New York Red Bulls in his first season, playing under his former University of Virginia and U.S. National Team coach Bruce Arena. His second season would be cut short by a herniated disc, forcing him to retire in July of 2008.

Claudio's foreign club career stands as one the finest by a U.S. national team member. After an impressive performance in the 1994 World Cup, he was picked up by German Bundesliga club Bayer Leverkusen. He was soon loaned out to fellow Bundesliga club, VfL Wolfsburg, where he became the first U.S. citizen to captain a European club. Reyna went on to have successful stints at Glasgow based Rangers F.C., and at Sunderland and Manchester City in the English Premier League. Reyna cohosted and organized the Steve Nash 'Showdown in Chinatown' charity soccer game on June 24th in Sara D. Roosevelt Park. I spoke with Reyna at an after match press event that evening.

du Nord: Claudio, how does it feel to see the U.S. National Team, an institution you dedicated much of your lives work to, claim a victory of this magnitude today against Spain?

Claudio Reyna: It's really hard to put into words what this means. The team looked world class out there today. They reached a level we've only seen from a few other sides on our national team's history, and for them to come out and do it on this stage, against this Spain side... it really is hard to put into words.

du Nord: As someone who played for the US National Team from 94' - 06', do you think, given the historic win streak and unbeaten streak that Spain was in the midst of, that this win ranks amongst the victories of the 94' and 02' World Cup teams?

C R: Ya know, I really do. Even though the World Cup is the pinnacle, the biggest stage, this is a victory that rivals any we've ever had. Spain is the number one team in the world at the moment, and was attempting to break into the realm of greatest team ever. For us to step up at this moment, with their side at full strength, and take them out, it truly is historic.

du Nord: You would have been proud of the Empire Supporters Club down at Nevada Smiths, many of whom found their way down here (motion toward a group of rowdy, Red, White, and Blue adorned fans). They were off the walls. They had some Spain fans on edge, especially when they started up the Team America chants...

C R: Ya, I know the one, I wouldn't expect anything less from that crew (laughs).

du Nord: It's exciting from a US soccer fan's perspective to see an increase in passion and interest at the moment. There are successful expansion teams in the MLS right now. There's increasing amounts of coverage on ESPN. The 2008 Euro Cup received high levels of interest when they aired that in it's entirety, which was a first. And now they've got two Premier League time slots for the 2009/2010 season that Setanta lost. Are you excited about what this could all mean for soccer enthusiasm in the US in general, or do you have some concerns about the EPL continuing to dominate in interest over the MLS?

C R: Ya know, in my time at Sunderland and Man City, I gained so much respect for the Premier League as one of the top sporting leagues in the world without question. I have no problem at all with Americans being exposed to it at a higher level, in fact, I think it will only generate more interest in the MLS in the long run. The more American sports fans we can convert to soccer, the better off the MLS is, and the US National Team will be in general. And I agree that the increase in time on ESPN is going to be a major factor in this movement. They were surprised at the number of viewers they were able to attract in 2008 when the played the Euro Cup. I genuinely believe that they'll find similar results this year with Premier League slots, and that'll be plus for US Soccer at large.

du Nord: One of's most popular writers, Bill Simmons, is covering Soccer a much higher rate now too. Have you had a chance to read any of his coverage? He's new to the sport, and fairly uninformed, but he's a tremendous writer with a massive following. He's very honest about his inexperience, but appears to really be taking a shine to soccer as of late.

C R: I have read a few of his Soccer pieces. He had an excellent one about the process of picking a Premier League team to follow as an American with no affiliations. It was really entertaining. I think a growing interest from him could really help overturn some long standing disdain for Soccer from some of the life long ESPN devotees.

du Nord: Ya, that was a really funny piece. He even mentioned in it that he at times out right disliked and ridiculed Soccer. As someone who, through your Claudio Reyna Foundation, recognizes the potential for Soccer to help the underprivileged and offer disadvantaged youths structure and discipline, it must be exciting to see that negative sentiment towards Soccer beginning to wane.

C R: Well ya, that's really what today is all about. We came out to bring attention and raise money for Steve and I's organizations. It helps to have these celebrities come out and create excitement, and for these NBA superstars to cross the divide and show their support for the game. I think Soccer and Basketball are very similar in the sense that they're not exclusive like Hockey or Baseball where it takes extremely specific facilities, and large sums of money to allow yourself to play. The beauty of Soccer is that all you need is a ball and some imagination. It doesn't discriminate, and it breaks down cultural divides. I think with the growing amount of American interest, that will be one of the biggest benefits. More people will take interest in other cultures as an extension of being around people from other countries, and through a shared appreciation for the world's game.

- - - - -

The du Nord interview with Salomon Kalou

Interview conducted and edited by Carl Carpenter

Salomon Kalou is one of the best young players in the English Premier League. He starts at left-wing for the perennial top four powerhouse club, the Chelsea Super Blues, based out of London. Equally as impressive, the recently turned 23 year old is a starter on the Côte d'Ivoire national team that's currently ranked 18th in the FIFA World Rankings. This is the highest of any African national team, with Cameroon a distant second at 29th.

Kalou started his professional career in the Netherlands playing for the Feyenoord satellite club Excelsior Rotterdam. After scoring 15 goals in 11 matches at the start of the 2002-2003 season, he was promoted to Feyenoord itself, joining his older brother Bonaventure Kalou. He stayed there for three years through the 2005-2006 season. His form was impressive enough over this time to draw encouragement from the Netherlands national team coach Marco van Basten to become a Dutch citizen. He was eligible as he had not yet played for the Côte d'Ivoire national team, and his brother warned him of the difficulty he had experienced with their native countries team officials and government. After being denied upon several attempts, he is now a fixture of the Côte d'Ivoire national team. He made his first start in March 2007, and scored 3 goals in route to Côte d'Ivoire's 4th place finish in the 2008 African Nations Cup.

The 2009-2010 season will be Kalou's fourth at Chelsea FC. He was a favorite of Chelsea's 2007-2008 coach Avram Grant, playing in 33 matches that season and netting 7 goals. He saw a slight decline in field time under Luiz Felipe Scolari, who replaced Grant for the 2008-2009 season. Scolari was sacked by February of of the 2008-2009 season, and replaced by Guus Hiddink. Hiddink is 6th ranked Russia's current national team coach, and he finished out last season for Chelsea. Kalou was a starter again by the end of the season, and is expected to maintain that position in the upcoming season under current Chelsea coach Carlo Ancelotti.

du Nord: Salomon, how did it feel to play Soccer in the US in this setting? Had you played in any events like this before?

Salomon Kalou: I had not played in a game like this, with Basketball players and famous Soccer players before. It was very exciting for me. I wasn't sure how hard to play at first, but I got a feel for the game after a while.

du Nord: I remember reading that when you first arrived at Chelsea, you were in awe of some of your most famous teammates. I'm sure after having played in the Premier League for three years, and in international play for Ivory Coast, that feeling has warn off some. Were you in awe of any of the stars out there today?

S K: Well, Thierry Henry is one of my heroes, so it is always exciting to get to speak with him. He's one of the all time greats. Also, I played in the Netherlands for four years. Edgar Davids is a legendary player from their National Team. It was exciting to meet and play against him today.

du Nord: So did you let him Nutmeg you out of respect, or does he still have the skills from back in the day?

S K: (laughs) No, he is still very good. That was not intentional on my part. I did not see it coming.

du Nord: You were a very outspoken supporter of last years replacement coach Guus Hiddink. You saw your time increase significantly under his coaching. Do you expect you'll play as often under Ancelotti.

S K: I think the reason we all like Hiddink so much was because every player felt he had an equal chance to play if he deserved it from his performance in practice. I think Ancelotti is equally as fair, and I believe I will get to play often this season if I am playing my best.

du Nord: There's a lot of young talent in Africa. How big of an honor was it for you to be named the CAF Young Player of the Year in 2008?

S K: I felt very blessed and humbled to receive this award over all the other talented players coming up in Africa.

du Nord: Do you think that 2010 will see an African country win the World Cup for the first time? And do you think Egypt's dissapointing performance in the Confederations Cup casts some doubt on this given they won the 2008 African Nations Cup?

S K: I think there are several African countries with a very strong chance to win, especially with the tournament being held in South Africa. Egypt won the African Nations Cup, that's true, but they are no longer ranked as the best African country. Ivory Coast is now the highest at 18th, and I think that we should be higher up, but we don't often have the chance to play against Europe and South America's best teams. I think Ivory Coast has as good a shot as any other country to win the World Cup in 2010.


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